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Church campus becomes water park for neighborhood’s children

Church campus becomes water park for neighborhood’s children

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Church campus becomes water park for neighborhood’s children

Aug. 17, 2007  News media contact: Tita Parham*
800-282-8011  Orlando {0722}

An e-Review Feature
By Jenna De Marco**

As the hot days of summer dragged on, friends and staff at Christ United Methodist Mission in east Gainesville found a way to make cooling off easier for the community’s children.

Christ United Methodist Mission in east Gainesville turned its campus into a water park, giving neighborhood children a place to beat the hot summer heat during their summer break. Photo by the Rev. Don Denton. Photo #07-0646.

“Every Thursday morning throughout the summer, we convert the church yard into a beach,” the Rev. Don Denton said.
The “beach” included three large above-ground pools and a 14-foot high water slide. Staff and volunteers began filling the collapsible pools at 7 a.m. in order to have them ready before the 2 p.m. swimming sessions.
The idea to welcome the neighborhood kids for swimming came from the pastor and Esther Kelly, the former director of the church’s Prime Time after-school program for children who are at-risk of failing in school.
“It’s a very impoverished community and transportation is an issue, and there’s not a way for (the kids) to reach the pool on the other side of the city,” Denton said.
The average income of participants is about $468 a month for a family of four, and most of the guardians are family members, such as grandparents or great-grandparents, Denton said.
“(The area) is so impoverished,” Denton said. “It’s a perfect opportunity for the local church to do mission work here at home.”
The swimming day was offered on Thursdays because the mission also sponsors a free bread distribution and hot lunch for the neighborhood that day. Typical attendance for those programs is 75 to 100 people. The summer sessions began with the hot lunch and continued with a half hour of Bible study, followed by a half hour of arts and crafts, and then swimming. The children ranged in age from 6 to 12.
“At 2 p.m., they hit the beach and they stay out there until about 3:30 or 4 p.m.,” Denton said. “ … They sure do get cooled off.”

Denton said 20 adults, including the parents of the children and Prime Time staff members certified in first aid, monitored the pool area. There were also special wading pools for smaller children.
The weekly volunteers for the Bible study and swimming program came mostly from the participants in the mission’s food program, which has a total of about 150 families registered.
“Our bread folks and our lunch folks ended up running the Bible school,” Denton said. “ … It’s very exciting. And they are bringing forth now their own music and their own songs and Bible stories told in their (own words.)”

Denton said members of the community and area churches played a large role in helping the mission make the swimming camp run smoothly.
“Once you lift (the needs) up before them, they’ll get involved,” Denton said. “If you let folks know what the needs are, the Lord speaks to them and they hear the needs. Our biggest need is people. And that’s the exciting part — they are coming from within the community.”
Retiree Sarah Brown, who is a volunteer for the mission, has been serving food and assisting with clothing distribution for about a year and a half.
“(It’s) absolutely marvelous,” Brown said. “I think this is such a worthwhile thing. … It benefits them spiritually and economically.”

In addition to bringing the “beach” to the neighborhood’s children, Christ United Methodist Mission also provided Bible study, arts and crafts, and lunch during the seven-week summer program. Photo by the Rev. Don Denton. Photo #07-0647.

As a mother of four and wife of a retired minister, Brown believes the impact of the feeding program and summer fun is important to the community.
“I’d say it’s been a tremendous help,” she said.
And the swimming program gives the children an opportunity for some variety in their summer routine, according to Kelly.
“I thought it was a good idea to give them a break from just playing in the streets,” she said.
Meanwhile, Kelly says the arts and crafts projects offered them some educational benefits.

“They are making things that are more mature, something they’ve never done before,” she said.
Kelly also said new families driving by noticed the large pools and slide and joined the fun. The total number of children registered this summer was a little more than 60. As a result, the 20 volunteers needed each week were crucial.
“The volunteers are working so faithfully, and the parents are staying and saying, ‘What can I do?’ ” Kelly said.
Another benefit to the children was the chance to socialize in a healthy way, according to Kelly.
“The immediate need that those children have in their lives is interacting with each other in a different setting,” Kelly said. “They are in with their peers, and they’ve been well supervised, and they’re going out and playing with one another and having fun together.”
The seven-week program ended with a back-to-school event that included free backpacks, school supplies, haircuts and new shoes for each child and a barbecue chicken lunch for the families.
“These kids need shoes,” Denton said. “A couple of our (nearby) churches came up with the money. I registered kids by ages and by shoe sizes.”
Denton said the Rev. Dr. Geraldine McClellan, the North Central District’s superintendent, helped acquire the backpacks through the conference’s Children’s Harvest ministry. Each year, the ministry works with a supplier that provides the backpacks and supplies at a discounted cost. The goal is to obtain enough supplies for about 3,500 children and youth. Most of the backpacks and supplies are distributed through the conference’s outreach ministries.

Part of the money to purchase the supplies comes from local churches. Each year they are asked to take a collection that will go toward the mission offering gathered at the annual conference event.
“She (McClellan) has a real heart for the small church,” Denton said. “Every year she gets us about 100 backpacks from the conference.”

This article relates to Outreach.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**De Marco is a freelance writer based in Viera, Fla.